Major religious groups
The world's principal religions and spiritual traditions may be classified into a small number of major groups, although this is by no means a uniform practice. This theory began in the 18th century with the goal of recognizing the relative levels of civility in societies.
History of religious categories
In world cultures, there have traditionally been many different groupings of religious belief. In Indian culture, different religious philosophies were traditionally respected as academic differences in pursuit of the same truth. In Islam, the Quran mentions three different categories: Muslims, the People of the Book, and idol worshipers. Initially, Christians had a simple dichotomy of world beliefs: Christian civility versus foreign heresy or barbarity. In the 18th century, "heresy" was clarified to mean Judaism and Islam; along with paganism, this created a fourfold classification which spawned such works as John Toland's Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity, which represented the three Abrahamic religions as different "nations" or sects within religion itself, the "true monotheism."
Daniel Defoe described the original definition as follows: "Religion is properly the Worship given to God, but 'tis also applied to the Worship of Idols and false Deities." At the turn of the 19th century, in between 1780 and 1810, the language dramatically changed: instead of "religion" being synonymous with spirituality, authors began using the plural, "religions", to refer to both Christianity and other forms of worship. Therefore, Hannah Adams's early encyclopedia, for example, had its name changed from An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects... to A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations.
In 1838, the four-way division of Christianity, Judaism, Mahommedanism (archaic terminology for Islam) and Paganism was multiplied considerably by Josiah Conder's Analytical and Comparative View of All Religions Now Extant among Mankind. Conder's work still adhered to the four-way classification, but in his eye for detail he puts together much historical work to create something resembling our modern Western image: he includes Druze, Yezidis, Mandeans, and Elamites[clarification needed] under a list of possibly monotheistic groups, and under the final category, of "polytheism and pantheism", he listed Zoroastrianism, "Vedas, Puranas, Tantras, Reformed sects" of India as well as "Brahminical idolatry", Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Lamaism, "religion of China and Japan", and "illiterate superstitions".
The modern meaning of the phrase "world religion", putting non-Christians at the same level as Christians, began with the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago. The Parliament spurred the creation of a dozen privately funded lectures with the intent of informing people of the diversity of religious experience: these lectures funded researchers such as William James, D. T. Suzuki, and Alan Watts, who greatly influenced the public conception of world religions.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the category of "world religion" fell into serious question, especially for drawing parallels between vastly different cultures, and thereby creating an arbitrary separation between the religious and the secular. Even history professors have now taken note of these complications and advise against teaching "world religions" in schools. Others see the shaping of religions in the context of the nation-state as the "invention of traditions".
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (May 2014)|
Religious traditions fall into super-groups in comparative religion, arranged by historical origin and mutual influence. Abrahamic religions originate in the Middle East, Indian religions in the Indian subcontinent and East Asian religions in East Asia. Another group with supra-regional influence are Afro-American religion, which have their origins in Central and West Africa.
- Middle Eastern religions:
- Abrahamic religions are the largest group, and these consist mainly of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and the Bahá'í Faith. They are named for the patriarch Abraham, and are unified by the practice of monotheism. Today, around 3.4 billion people are followers of Abrahamic religions and are spread widely around the world apart from the regions around East and Southeast Asia. Several Abrahamic organizations are vigorous proselytizers.
- Iranian religions (not listed below due to overlaps), partly of Indo-European origins, includes Zoroastrianism, Yazdânism, Ahl-e Haqq and historical traditions of Gnosticism (Mandaeism, Manichaeism). It has significant overlaps with Abrahamic traditions, e.g. in Sufism and in recent movements such as Bábism and the Bahá'í Faith.
- Indian religions, originated in Greater India and partly of Indo-European origins, they tend to share a number of key concepts, such as dharma, karma, reincarnation among others. They are of the most influence across the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, Southeast Asia, as well as isolated parts of Russia. The main Indian religions are Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
- East Asian religions consist of several East Asian religions which make use of the concept of Tao (in Chinese) or Dō (in Japanese or Korean). They include many Chinese folk religions, Taoism and Confucianism, as well as Korean and Japanese religion influenced by Chinese thought.
- African religions:
- The religions of the tribal peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa, but excluding ancient Egyptian religion, which is considered to belong to the ancient Middle East;
- African diasporic religions practiced in the Americas, imported as a result of the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 18th centuries, building on traditional religions of Central and West Africa.
- Indigenous ethnic religions, formerly found on every continent, now marginalized by the major organized faiths in many parts of the world or persisting as undercurrents (folk religions) of major religions. Includes traditional African religions, Asian shamanism, Native American religions, Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal traditions, Chinese folk religions, and postwar Shinto. Under more traditional listings, this has been referred to as "paganism" along with historical polytheism.
- New religious movement is the term applied to any religious faith which has emerged since the 19th century, often syncretizing, re-interpreting or reviving aspects of older traditions such as Ayyavazhi, Mormonism, Ahmadiyya, Pentecostalism, polytheistic reconstructionism, and so forth.
One way to define a major religion is by the number of current adherents. The population numbers by religion are computed by a combination of census reports and population surveys (in countries where religion data is not collected in census, for example the United States or France), but results can vary widely depending on the way questions are phrased, the definitions of religion used and the bias of the agencies or organizations conducting the survey. Informal or unorganized religions are especially difficult to count.
There is no consensus among researchers as to the best methodology for determining the religiosity profile of the world's population. A number of fundamental aspects are unresolved:
- Whether to count "historically predominant religious culture[s]"
- Whether to count only those who actively "practice" a particular religion
- Whether to count based on a concept of "adherence"
- Whether to count only those who expressly self-identify with a particular denomination
- Whether to count only adults, or to include children as well.
- Whether to rely only on official government-provided statistics
- Whether to use multiple sources and ranges or single "best source(s)"
The table below lists religions classified by philosophy; however, religious philosophy is not always the determining factor in local practice. Please note that this table includes heterodox movements as adherents to their larger philosophical category, although this may be disputed by others within that category. For example Christianity and Islam include those are culturally Christian and Muslim as well as indigenous people combining folk religions or shamanism with either.
The population numbers below are computed by a combination of census reports, random surveys (in countries where religion data is not collected in census, for example the United States or France), and self-reported attendance numbers, but results can vary widely depending on the way questions are phrased, the definitions of religion used and the bias of the agencies or organizations conducting the survey. Informal or unorganized religions are especially difficult to count. Some organizations may wildly inflate their numbers.
|Religion||Number of followers
|Christianity||2,200||Abrahamic religions||Levant region|||
|Islam||1,800||Abrahamic religions||Arabian Peninsula|||
|Hinduism||1,100||Indian religions||Indian subcontinent|||
|Buddhism||488||Indian religions||Indian subcontinent|||
The following are medium-sized world religions:
|Religion||Number of followers
|Shinto||100[nb 1]||Japanese religions||Japan|||
|Sikhism||28||Indian religions||Indian subcontinent|||
|Judaism||14||Abrahamic religions||Levant region|||
|Korean shamanism||5-15||Korean religions||Korea|||
|Caodaism||5-9||Vietnamese religions||Vietnam, 20th century|||
|Bahá'í Faith||5-7.3||Abrahamic religions||Iran, 19th century||[nb 2]|
|Jainism||4.2||Indian religions||Indian subcontinent, 7th to 9th century BC|||
|Cheondoism||3-4||Korean religions||Korea, 19th century|||
|Hoahaoism||1.5-3||Vietnamese religions||Vietnam, 20th century|||
|Tenriism||5||Japanese religions||Japan, 19th century|||
- Religion by region
- Religion in Africa
- Religion in Antarctica
- Religion in Asia
- Religion in Europe
- Religion in North America
- Religion in Oceania
- Religion in South America
Trends in adherence
Since the late 19th century, the demographics of religion have changed a great deal. On the one hand, since the 19th century, large areas of Sub-Saharan Africa have been converted to Christianity, and this area of the world has the highest population growth rate. On the other hand, some countries with a historically large Christian population have experienced a significant decline in the numbers of professed active Christians: see demographics of atheism. Symptoms of the decline in active participation in Christian religious life include declining recruitment for the priesthood and monastic life, as well as diminishing attendance at church. In the realm of Western culture, there has been an increase in the number of people who identify themselves as secular humanists. In many countries, such as the People's Republic of China, communist governments have discouraged religion, making it difficult to count the actual number of believers. However, after the collapse of communism in numerous countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, religious life has been experiencing resurgence there, both in the form of traditional Eastern Christianity and particularly in the forms of Neopaganism and East Asian religions.
World Christian Encyclopedia
|1970–1985||1990–2000||2000–2005||% change 1970–2010 (40 yrs)|
|3.65%: Bahá'í Faith||2.65%: Zoroastrianism||1.84%: Islam||9.85%: Daoism|
|2.74%: Islam||2.28%: Bahá'í Faith||1.70%: Bahá'í Faith||4.26%: Bahá'í Faith|
|2.34%: Hinduism||2.13%: Islam||1.62%: Sikhism||4.23%: Islam|
|1.67%: Buddhism||1.87%: Sikhism||1.57%: Hinduism||3.08%: Sikhism|
|1.64%: Christianity||1.69%: Hinduism||1.32%: Christianity||2.76%: Buddhism|
|1.09%: Judaism||1.36%: Christianity||2.62%: Hinduism|
|1.09%: Buddhism||2.60%: Jainism|
|across 40 yrs, world total 2.16%|
|0.37%: unaffiliated (inc. atheists, agnostics, religious but not affiliated)|
Maps of self-reported adherence
- Controversial, see the references.
- Historically, the Bahá'í Faith arose in 19th century Persia, in the context of Shia Islam, and thus may be classed on this basis as a divergent strand of Islam, placing it in the Abrahamic tradition. However, the Bahá'í Faith considers itself an independent religious tradition, which draws from Islam but also other traditions. The Bahá'í Faith may also be classed as a new religious movement, due to its comparatively recent origin, or may be considered sufficiently old and established for such classification to not be applicable.
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- Masuzawa 2005, pp. 65–6
- Masuzawa 2005, 270–281
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- Indian Registrar General & Census Commissioner. "Religious Composition". Census of India, 2001
- Self-reported figures from 1999; North Korea only (South Korean followers are minimal according to census). In The A to Z of New Religious Movements by George D. Chryssides. ISBN 0-8108-5588-7
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- The results have been studied and found "highly correlated with other sources of data", but "consistently gave a higher estimate for percent Christian in comparison to other cross-national data sets." Hsu, Becky; Reynolds, Amy; Hackett, Conrad; Gibbon, James (2008-07-09). "Estimating the Religious Composition of All Nations" (PDF). Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
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- Major World Religions
- International Council for Inter-Religious Cooperation
- International Imam Organization